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Gonzaga defense faces another tall order in stopping South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The best defense in the country faces a stiff challenge in South Carolina senior guard Sindarius Thornwell.

The second best defense in the country faces a tall task against Gonzaga’s frontcourt, led by 7-foot-1, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski.

Top-seeded Gonzaga (36-1) and seventh-seeded South Carolina (26-10) collide in a national semifinal Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium, both trying to limit the other’s offensive strengths.

For Gonzaga, No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive metrics, that means dealing with Thornwell, which nobody has pulled off successfully in the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga, though, has had answers slowing red-hot tournament scorers.

Mike Daum, South Dakota State forward, 17 points on 7-of-16 shooting. Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern guard, 20 points on 7-of-20 shooting. Jevon Carter, West Virginia guard, 21 points on 6-of-17 shooting. Trevon Bluiett, Xavier wing, 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting.

Thornwell has scored at least 24 points in each tournament game. He’s responsible for 31.2 percent of South Carolina’s points in the last five games.

“A matchup nightmare again,” Zags assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “Daum was a 4-5, Bluiett a 3-4, he’s more like Bluiett. He’s bigger and more athletic than our guards, quicker and more perimeter-based than our bigs. Maybe one difference that’s very concerning is he’s a physical force.”

Thornwell isn’t the only one with that quality on the court. Karnowski and sidekicks Johnathan Williams and Zach Collins have South Carolina’s attention.

“It’s going to be tough, mainly with the weight difference,” said Gamecocks forward Maik Kotsar, who is 6-10 and 245 pounds. Karnowski “is a force. I’ve played against a few guys that were as huge, but not with the same skill level.”

South Carolina, second in KenPom’s defensive rankings, is relentless and it starts out front with guards Thornwell, Duane Notice and PJ Dozier. The three are strong, athletic and weigh between 205 and 225 pounds.

The Gamecocks rank fifth in turnovers forced (17.2 per game), seventh in 3-point percentage defense (29.8) and 15th in field-goal percentage defense (39.8).

There are some comparisons to West Virginia, which fell to GU 61-58 in San Jose, but the Gamecocks have bigger and better on-ball defenders and more of an interior presence.

“Very physical group,” Zags guard Jordan Mathews said. “When they played Florida, they did a great job of making them rush into shots. Their pressure is a little different than West Virginia.

“They want to deny you a catch but it’s not the end-all. They’ll still guard you, and they’re going to play on top of you. Staying poised is key for us.”

The best way to do that is to work inside out.

“That’s what we always want to establish,” Mathews said.

Thornwell returned to practice after missing Thursday with flu-like symptoms.

“Probably the best player in the country nobody talks about,” Michaelson said. “With a guy like him, you have to mix it up. If you give him one look, he’ll foul you out. He’ll get used to it and exploit it.”

The Zags have been outstanding defensively in the tournament, even with Northwestern’s 53-point second half factored into the stats. In four games, opponents are averaging 59 points on 33.7-percent shooting, including 24 percent beyond the arc.

Thornwell: “I think Gonzaga is really nervous”

Thornwell had an interesting reply to the final question in his Friday press conference.

Asked which team is the most nervous at the Final Four, he said, “I think Gonzaga is really nervous. We’re nervous, too. Everybody’s nervous, nobody wants to lose right now. If you lose it’s over. But I think Gonzaga is really nervous.”

A moderator tried to end the session but Thornwell was asked: Because they’re playing South Carolina?

“Maybe,” Thornwell said.

Said GU senior guard Jordan Mathews: “We’re not nervous. We’re just going out there and we’re going to play.”

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